Metal Horns and Red Wire Dreadlocks: The Rise of Death’s Head II

Death's Head II Mini SeriesOr – Making it When you Least Expect it

First posted on deviantart by Liam Sharp, the co-founder of the digital comics company Madefire has kindly given us permission to cross post his memories (with some editorial annotations) of Marvel UK and the origins of Death’s Head II…

Who knows when you’re going to hit the zeitgeist, and suddenly your world changes in way you could never predict?I was 20 years old and f****** up everything in a monumental way. I’d had my heart broken, failed to stay focused on work, and run up a ton of debts. I was drinking Falstaffian quantities, and doing pretty much all I could to avoid facing into my own reality. My electricity was cut off, then my phone. Instead of collecting rent from my lodger I got drunk with him on a fairly nightly basis.I needed to face it – I was a f****** mess.
I returned to London aged 21 with a ten pound note in my pocket and a dear friend prepared to put me up while I got back on my feet. Brian West was a cartoonist and writer then, and together we tried numerous things to bring in money and put beer and food in our bellies. We spent our weekends getting up at 4.30am to secure a slot at Camden Market where we drew caricatures. We planned magical comedy skits for the fringe circuit. We wrote plays, concocted ideas for television series’s, and we drank. A lot. And played guitars loudly and badly.I’d burned a bridge at 2000AD through general tardiness. I meant well, but my lack of any hold on my own destiny, spiraling debts and everything else I was failing to do just resulted in late delivery of art – which is a big no-no (though it’s also very common of freelancers!) I’ve worked hard for the last 20 years to change that, and my track record since then has been exemplary, but I was young and foolish, and I won’t deny it. I was unreliable. That only left Marvel UK, a company I had previously failed to make any real impression upon.

I struck lucky. It’s been a long time now and I can’t remember the exact chain of events, but somehow John Freeman, then editor of Doctor Who Magazine at the company, but who was also writing scripts for UK titles such as The Real Ghostbusters and Thundercats, landed the opportunity to co-create a creator-owned story for STRIP, an anthology comic edited by Dan Abnett.
“The Wand”, a post-apocalypse tale featuring “Rourke of the Radlands’ was a success and from there, we began throwing around several ideas for continuing the adventures of female warrior Rourke, who Dan told us had apparently struck a chord with readers.
“We’d thrown story ideas around as far back as when Marvel UK were still based in Bayswater,” John reminds me. “A strange magician warrior character was one – I have the notes somewhere.
“Dan Abnett was charged with trying to get several US-style projects off the ground, including one featuring Abslom Daak – Dalek Killer by Steve Moore, among other things. Anyway, the Rourke proposal went through numerous permutations – even versions that included Marvel US characters at, I think, the suggestion of Tom de Falco or Carol Kalish’s suggestion.
Liam Sharp's faxes, sent to John Freeman featuring ideas for a proposed Marvel UK mini series featuring Rourke, Monark Starstalker and Wolverine.
Liam Sharp’s faxes, sent to John Freeman featuring ideas for a proposed Marvel UK mini series featuring Rourke, Monark Starstalker and Wolverine.
“It was during this period that Paul Neary returned to Marvel UK and I showed him some of your designs for this proposed project which you’d faxed to me… and it was those that got Paul excited…”Paul Neary was instantly likeable. He immediately started showing me work I should look at – in particular Jim Lee, who blew me away. I had not been keeping track of Marvel or US style comics, and there was an amazing renaissance going on. Jim was at the forefront of it with Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Scott Williams, and others. Barry Smith was drawing Wolverine: Weapon X… truly stunning work all round. It ignited me, and it was a style I instantly understood and could work with. Now it’s viewed as the ‘Image’ style, but back then it was the Marvel house style, and Paul was keen that Marvel UK should not get left behind.

Death's Head Prelim by Liam Sharp
Death’s Head Prelim by Liam Sharp

Paul showed me a picture of a redesign for Death’s Head, created by Simon Furman and Geoff Senior. It was lovely work, but he felt it wasn’t in step with where he wanted to take the company. It set me thinking, and that night I faxed Paul a sketch, with a note that read ‘Hi Paul. I always thought Death’s Head should look something like this…’

Death's Head II original Mini Series Cover Inks
Death’s Head II original Mini Series Cover Inks

The next day Paul called me in again. He wanted to start over, with me as the artist. A whole new team. Dan Abnet had been an editor at Marvel UK but had left to pursue his writing. In he came to work with me on fleshing the book out. Then we tried out several inkers, settling on the lovely Andy Lanning – he, myself and Brian had previously shared a studio in Islington, so it was wonderful to be working with familiar faces again.

It was rough on Simon and Geoff, but I was so swept up in the excitement and this incredible, unexpected opportunity that there wasn’t much time to consider their fates. Thankfully they are both extremely decent chaps and we long ago put any animosity to bed in the cigarette-enshrouded bars around the Temple area in London, where Marvel UK’s offices used to be.The cover was done. The strip work began in earnest – and proved quite a process! The book was announced in Marvel’s Sales to Astonish catalogie, and pre-orders jumped from 30,000 to 300,000!
It rocked the Marvel UK offices to the core, and we quickly regrouped. This had to be done right. I was growing as an artist, and the complex time-travel nature of the story was proving unwieldy. I ended up drawing the first issue almost twice, with the pages below completely cut from the series and redrawn —

Original Death's Head II pages for the first Death's Head II Mini Series
Original Death’s Head II pages for the first Death’s Head II Mini Series

 

Eventually we were ready to go – and man, did it go big! The first issue of the four issue mini series sold out immediately, and there was a second and third printing with silver and gold ink on the covers. It was insane! We couldn’t believe the size of the print runs, and I was suddenly a ‘hot’ artist in the US. I started getting profiles and interviews, invites to conventions, including San Diego. They made a costume of the character, and people were getting tattoos of him! He was a genuine superstar!

 

Death's Head II Mini Series #3 Cover Inks
Death’s Head II Mini Series #3 Cover Inks

 

Issue after issue the sales were solid. It was not going to be a one-off. Death’s Head II had legs. We started to plan an ongoing series, and this time I did a full-colour painting which became the launch poster —

Death's Head II and X-Men Mini Poster by Liam Sharp
Death’s Head II and X-Men Mini Poster by Liam Sharp

 

The orders came is just shy of 500,000 copies – unheard of now. It was a staggering success. Nothing would ever be the same for me.

Marvel UK Editor in Chief Paul Neary in 1994. Photo: Tim Quinn
Marvel UK Editor in Chief Paul Neary in 1994. Photo: Tim Quinn

I drew four issues of the series, then wrote and drew Death’s Head Gold, before getting wooed

Lord Havok #6 Cover by Liam Sharp
Lord Havok #6 Cover by Liam Sharp

by Marvel US, drawing Spider-Man, the X-Men, and graduating to a run on The Incredible Hulk. But it was all thanks to metal horns, red wire dreadlocks, a metal skull, Death’s Head II, Marvel UK, and Paul Neary. Those were halcyon days I will never forget.

I did get to (kind of) revisit Death’s Head II in a DC series that gently parodied Marvel. Lord Havok had been a pastiche of Dr Doom, but with the editor on side we changed it to be a Death’s Head riff. I was even fortunate enough to have one of the greatest inkers of our age, and a direct influence on the DHII series, ink me – Scott Williams!

Five years ago I pitched a Death’s Head II reboot to Marvel, with Bryan Hitch co-plotting the story. Sadly they passed, but there’s a taster of what could have been below.

I’m Glad to hear that Marvel are finally creating a new Death’s Head story with the excellent Nick Roche on art chores. I wish them the very best, and hope that old skull-head is a great for him as he was for me.

Death's Head - Unpublished Reboot art by Liam Sharp
Death’s Head – Unpublished Reboot art by Liam Sharp

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor. He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY. Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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